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Ohio State spinout earns SBIR grant to extend quantum dot technology to biobanks

Jessica Winter and Lauren Cosby in lab
Prof. Winter (left) in her lab with recent PhD graduate Lauren Cosby ’19

A biotech company launched by Engineering Professor Jessica Winter recently earned its second Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation.

Columbus-based Core Quantum Technologies received a two-year, $750,000 SBIR phase II award last fall. The company's magnetic nanoparticles emit different colors to label molecules of interest in biological samples, enabling researchers to continuously magnetically separate and characterize cells with greater brightness, longevity, and stability than other reagents.

In 2013, the company received a phase I SBIR grant to develop their first product, the MultiDot, comprised of a group of semiconductor nanoparticle quantum dots encapsulated in polymer-based micelles. In cancer diagnostic applications, researchers can attach MultiDots to specific cell structures to identify biomarkers of interest and enable personalized treatment plans. Core Quantum Technologies sells and distributes MultiDots through its web site with an initial target for leukemia and lymphoma detection.

The current SBIR grant will fund development and commercialization of a product variation that adds superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles to enable separation and manipulation of cellular biomarkers. Because MagDots are both fluorescent and magnetic, they allow researchers to seamlessly isolate cells expressing a selected biomarker, then directly analyze via flow cytometry or fluorescence microscopy.

“MagDots can be used for both diagnostics and cell separation,” Winter said. “So you can isolate cells from a mixture and enrich them if they’re rare in that mixture. Then you can immediately characterize them.”

She and her team will work with collaborators at The Cleveland Clinic to develop a separation device to go along with the MagDots to sell as a kit. The company’s initial target market is biobanks, repositories of biological samples and health information. Biobanks are a very important part of performing medical research and have produced many studies with important implications for improving health because researchers can quickly survey specimens from many patients.

“If you have been diagnosed with a serious disease, your physician might ask you to donate blood or tissue to a biobank, which holds that for researchers to use later,” explained Winter. These biological samples consist of a mixture of pathologically normal and diseased cells and tissues, requiring separation for focused research. MagDots allow researchers to identify and isolate the one cell type in which they’re interested, and immediately analyze it from the fluorescence signal. Sample quality is critical to biobank operation.

“Magnetic purification is already well-established in the biomedical industry,” she added, “but it hasn’t been coupled with fluorescent detection. Our workflow allows researchers to do it all in one step and immediately analyze the collected sample for purity.”

Based on their SBIR phase I research, Winter and her colleagues anticipate that this technology could increase recovery and purity to greater than 75%, compared to 10% to 20% for flow cytometry of biobank samples alone.

The NSF SBIR program focuses on transforming scientific discovery into products and services with commercial potential and/or societal benefit. Unlike fundamental research, the NSF SBIR program supports startups and small businesses in the creation of deep technologies, getting discoveries out of the lab and into the market.

Core Quantum Technologies licensed the quantum dot technology through The Ohio State University Technology Commercialization Office (TCO) in 2012.

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